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The Lectionary and "The Young Tractarians"

By Fr. Mark Perkins

As most of the readers of this blog probably already know, the one-year lectionary of biblical readings — such as that of the 1928 BCP — is ancient and venerable but also quite out of style these days (at least in the West). Of those Western denominations that follow lectionary readings, most have shifted in the past half-century to a three-year rotating lectionary. In addition, most denominations have added Old Testament and Psalm readings to the traditional Epistle and Gospel lessons at Sunday Eucharist. By holding to the one-year lectionary and only reading the Epistle and Gospel lessons on Sundays (as the majority, I believe, of our parishes do), the Anglican Province of America adheres to the historic norm — but is now quite out of step with most of Western Christianity.

You might wonder why we do so. Perhaps you suspect it is simply an instinctual resistance to change — a reactionary grasping of the old simply because it is old. No doubt, for some, an unreflective suspicion of the new does play a role. While a gut-level preference for the old over the new and unproven should not by any means be derided, there is more to the issue than that.

In Episode 9 of “The Young Tractarians” podcast, Andrew Sabisky and Fr. Endre Kormos outline the arguments in favor of a one-year lectionary. Those churches that adopted the three-year lectionary have done so for good reasons. Still, as Sabisky and Fr. Kormos suggest, the gains have not been as significant as hoped, and the losses of the shift are extraordinary. They also offer a strong argument against the four-lesson format for the Sunday mass (including an Old Testament lesson and Psalm along with the Epistle and Gospel).

If you don’t want to listen to the whole episode — and it is quite lengthy — the section dealing with the lectionary begins right at the 22-minute mark. (If you do wish to listen to the whole episode, I should say that I find aspects of their biblical reflection on Jesus' temptation in the wilderness a bit dubious — most especially the suggestion that gluttony is the worst vice because it is purely carnal, whereas other temptations, such as pride, have a spiritual element.)

For what it’s worth, and in conclusion, I find their arguments for the one-year lectionary completely convincing and unanswerable. I am likewise convinced of the inadvisability of the four-lesson format as we currently have it — given the length and lack of unifying coherence to them. I do wonder, however, whether these weaknesses are inherent and necessary to that format. Perhaps a more circumscribed and judicious choice of psalms and Old Testament pericopes might avoid the weaknesses identified by Sabisky and Fr. Kormos, while providing the promised gains in biblical literacy.

Still, the true solutions for illiteracy in the psalms and Old Testament are the Daily Office and Bible study. And for those parishioners who will not undertake these activities on their own, it may in fact be better for them to engage solely (and thereby more robustly) in the Epistle and Gospel texts — particularly when preachers exegete the New Testament in such a way as to reveal the profound influence of the Old Testament, as of course they should!


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